Rich: You first played the Hope in 1989. What do you remember?
Billy: I had a blistering 82 at El Dorado, I remember that.
Rich: Amazing how those rounds tend to linger.
Billy: This one was special. I had Gypsy Joe Grillo on my bag. First tee ball of a brand new season went OB, into someone’s swimming pool. By the 12th my drive was stuck in a palm tree. It got so bad in that first round that one of my amateur partners tipped Gypsy Joe $100 and said, “You’re really going to need this because your man’s got no chance.”
Rich: How long did it take Gypsy to spend the hundo?
Billy: Probably already had it spent. He was a legend. Caddied for Curtis (Strange) at the Masters when he almost won it after shooting 80 in the first round. Also caddied for Elk (Steve Elkington).
Rich: Needless to say you weren’t sniffing the lead after 82.
Billy: I was last after the first day. Arnold Palmer shot 81.
Rich: Anything to keep the Wake Forest connection.
Billy: Yeah, I was actually thinking when I read the paper here I am trying to be a PGA pro and successful and Arnie at age 59 is beating me so I have a lot of work to do.
Rich: This used to be the first event of the year, right?
Billy: Exactly. You knew even if you missed the cut you were going to play four rounds of competitive golf. The desert was a great place to come to work on your game and get the kinks out from the winter break and get the year started.
Rich: They had some great fields, too.
Billy: I remember some years the winner of the Q-School didn’t even get in because so many of the top players were here.
Rich: Did you have a favorite celebrity through the years?
Billy: Joe Pesci was the best.
Rich: Was he like his character in ‘Good Fellas?’
Billy: I knew he wasn’t going to shoot me, but not far off. We actually became really good friends playing here and at Pebble. You wouldn’t believe how we met.
Rich: Try me.
Billy: We met at the ’91 Shark Shootout at Sherwood. Friend of mine was going to drive me to LAX after the tournament and came to my hotel room. I was in the bathroom. Little did I know he’d set up the surprise of my life. The next thing I know my door comes flying open and standing there looking at me is Joe Pesci. And I kid you not he looks at me with a stogie in his mouth and a black leather coat and says, “So I hear you been looking for me kid. Well here I am.” I’m sitting on the thrown and he throws me a cigar. Unreal.
Rich: I remember him smoking giant stogies, bigger than a Callaway driver.
Billy: Cohibas. Never without ‘em. Hit half his shots with the Cohiba in his mouth.
Rich: Always loved a guy who could play really well with a heater hanging from his mouth.
Billy: I’m not saying he played really well. If I took a puff I probably wouldn’t be able to play I’d be so dizzy. He’d smoke four or five a round and be fine.
Rich: I’ll bet dinners were fun.
Billy: The best. No matter where we went for dinner it was usually Italian and it was always very good.
Rich: Nice to see Yogi Berra as the tournament ambassador this year.
Billy: I had a memorable round in ’04 with Yogi at the Palmer Course. We were paired and I needed a good round to make the cut. I shot 30 on the front, 63 for the day to make the cut and more. And after every birdie Yogi would give me a hug. He reminded me so much of my grandfather that he was like family to me. Every time I see him I get that hug and I think of that time at PGA West.
Rich: What would bring this event back to its glory days?
Billy: Having three courses at PGA West is a good start and a nice convenience for the players. Maybe going from five rounds to four would help. Look, it’s difficult. It’s a numbers game. With the amount of tournaments we play and the amount of money we play for, the top players are going to skip somewhere and that’s too bad for tournaments like this one. When you see the tradition – this is the 51st year – and you see the pictures from the old days, the fun and excitement they were having, that would be great if that could continue.
Rich: How important is it for pros to play once or twice a year in this kind of format with celebrities and amateurs?
Billy: It’s important especially in these economic times that we’re supportive of all the sponsors and the amateurs that are footing the bill.
Rich: Do players get it?
Billy: I think most do, or they wouldn’t be here.
Rich: But a lot of the top guys are not here.
Billy: There wasn’t an Abu Dhabi 20 years ago. There are just more opportunities than ever from around the world.
Rich: Interesting, Joe Ogilve thought Freddy Couples would be an ideal host. Who’s going to say no to Freddy?
Billy: Not me. I think that’s a great idea. That would be fabulous. He’s won here, been a big supporter of the tournament. Freddy should have his own tournament.
Rich: Bo Jackson, Emmitt Smith, Greg Maddux and Bruce Jenner are some of the ex-athletes playing this year. Who’s the best athlete golfer you’ve ever played with?
Billy: Mario Lemieux. He Came to Rhode Island and played in our charity event and my mouth was open in amazement. His swing was effortless, with power; he’s just a fabulous player. Two others who could bring it were John Smoltz and Mark McGwire. I played a bunch with Mark at Pebble.
Rich: I know you’re friendly with Mark. What’s your reaction to his recent admission that he’d taken steroids?
Billy: Great. I’m happy that he’s happy. It was a big burden lifted off his chest. Now he can try to be the best hitting coach he can be.
Rich: Any feelings on McGwire and the Hall of Fame?
Billy: How are they going to judge this whole era? (Roger) Clemens, (Barry) Bonds, those guys don’t get in and that’s a shame. Gaylord Perry’s in the Hall of Fame. End of story. It’ll be interesting to see as time goes on how it plays out.
Rich: What kind of commentator do you hope to be?
Billy: I hope to bring a young, witty, and creative point of view.
Rich: Based on this conversation, you’re off to a good start.
Billy: Thanks Rich, I’m really looking forward to the opportunity. It’s going to be fun.
Rich: Dinner at Pesci’s favorite joint tonight?
Billy: Which one, there are a dozen of ‘em? I’ll call him and try to get him to buy.